Sunday, April 1, 2012
Author: Charles E. Israel
It's amazing what kinds of treasures can get lost in the library shelves. The beauty of print is that something so quiet and limited can last forever, and show up fifty years in the future to affect someone the same way it would have fresh off the presses. Rizpah is a skewed view of the ancient Israel we thought we knew, diving deep inside the characters and describing them in heartbreaking detail.
Drawing from a very small section of the Bible, Charles E. Israel has resurrected the world of pre-Jerusalem Israel, an arid region of bickering tribes and ruthless wars. Speaking in first person through the old Philistine woman Egrep, the story centers around a young woman named Rizpah who is taken as a slave after her family is brutally murdered before her eyes. In the years that follow, she is the favorite concubine of the chieftain Torash in Askelon, a city of ancient Philistia. However, once they lose a battle to the Israelites, she is captured and immediately falls deeply in love with the tempestuous new king, Saul. The Bible names her in 2 Samuel as Saul's concubine, and Rizpah follows that tale all the way to the end.
Throughout the book, we meet both familiar and new characters. For instance, although anyone who has read the Old Testament is fairly familiar with Saul and David, Israel takes the time to develop them into well-rounded, faulted, deep human beings, exploring ambitions and desires in them. Alongside them, we meet their courtiers and soldiers, all of whom are gritty and realistic, giving a feeling for the world at that time, drawing from the incredibly condensed text of the Bible.
Israel handles the character of David in a particularly deviant, intriguing manner. Through most of the novel, the author keeps a very religiously neutral tone-- he is risking life and limb of being called a blasphemer for fictionalizing on the Old Testament-- but takes a specific interest in developing the character of David. We've heard it said that "history is written by the winners;" Egrep alludes to this bitterly as she sketches the character of the future king as a ruthlessly ambitious, deceptive person with manifold contradictions within his person. He uses the family of Saul, marrying his daughter Michal and becoming best friends with his son Jonathan, before fleeing for his life from the mad king. When we meet him again later, he is quietly sure as he works out a heartbreaking, cruel plot to secure his throne.
Israel is incredibly inventive with the nations surrounding the Israelites at the time-- Philistia, Moab, and Phoenecia, among others. There is little to no detail about them in the Bible, but they are necessary in the tale, so he has done his research and discovered the names and pieces of their history, contemporaries of Saul and David. The Bible may be the tale of the nation of Israel, but there was a whole world surrounding them, and Rizpah gives us just a little taste of what that world may have been like.
Characters develop viscerally before our eyes as the book goes on, like a wound festering and growing darker before slowly healing into an ugly scar. In particular, the descriptions of Saul going mad in the tent at Gilgal is gripping and pitiful as we watch a strong man, a king of the ancient world, slowly descending into babbling insanity. Rizpah can do nothing for the man that she loves, and Israel explores the fullest depths of her feelings as she can only hold onto hope until the end.
Rizpah does get a bit tedious. At 535 pages, the novel felt stretched out, as if length described the value of the epic, and could definitely have stood to be condensed a bit. There are parts where it's possible to skim and still get the gist of what happened, which is not a particularly good quality. The end of the book seems to drop off rather suddenly, though; there's little closure for the tale, and although it's meant to be bittersweet, only feels bitter and drab.
However, Rizpah is worth a read just for its intrinsic workings, especially for aspiring writers. Israel is obviously an astute observer of human nature, as he channels many quotable philosophies through Egrep, and many of them resonate beautifully with the tale as well as with the reader. The author explores a world largely untouched by the world of writers, either by taboo or by lack of record, but he does it very well.
It's not available on eBooks as far as I know, but you can purchase it for cents on Amazon if you like-- the lowest listing I saw was $0.06. But your library will probably have a copy, so take a look before you order it.